Psalms of Both Lament and Praise
A common and often helpful response is to continue to proclaim the truth of God’s character and to recount His past faithfulness during times of suffering and difficulty. The Bible certainly echoes this kind of response to adversity, where praise becomes an act of faith.
But scripture is not limited to responding in this way. In fact the more common response in the Bible is to be very candid about the experience of adversity and to cry out directly to God for relief. This cry for help is most often and clearly seen in the Psalms of complaint or lament.
The lament in the Bible is not insignificant. More than one third of the Psalms are laments, which makes lament by far the most common kind of song in Israel’s songbook. The disparity between Israel’s songbook and a modern worship notebook or hymnal is remarkable. In both you will find songs of adoration, exuberant praise and bold declarations of God’s unfailing love and faithfulness.
What is conspicuous by its absence in our worship corpus—modern or traditional—are songs of lament or complaint. Typically only a small fraction even gives a hint of our experience of adversity, weakness and suffering. Few, if any, plumb the depth of suffering, or cry to God for justice like the lament Psalms.
Recovering the practice of lament based on the lament in the Bible will help us be more authentic, biblically faithful and culturally relevant followers of Jesus.
1. Praise and Lament in the Bible Respond to Reality
Songs of praise and songs of lament in the Bible are both a response to reality. In our songs of praise and adoration, we respond to the reality of God’s revealed character: His holiness, goodness, faithfulness, majesty and tender care. While God’s unchanging character is certainly the only ultimate reality—until the final consummation of the Kingdom of God—there is also the reality of our broken world, which constantly impinges on our lives. It is to this reality that the Psalms address themselves.
We can see from lament in the Bible that laments face head-on corporate and individual grief, pain, suffering and the resultant alienation. Their shrill tone gives voice to this suffering and keeps us from responding to our pain with denial or unmerited guilt. Much personal psychological pathos could be more easily resolved if we would learn to express our pain, anger, guilt, frustration and disappointment.
Laments encourage us to face our individual and communal pain and demonstrate that the first and best response to pain and suffering is to bring it before God. Laments help us wrestle with suffering when we are relatively or totally blameless. Instead of feelings of vague guilt, laments give us form and language to bring our case directly before God. From the sublime to the horrific, the Psalms give us a picture of praise and lament in the bible that illustrates that we can and should respond to all our lived experience before God in worship.
2. Praise and Lament Share Theology
Songs of lament and songs of praise share the same theology. Both recount God’s past faithfulness and proclaim His righteous character. But after affirming God’s goodness, the laments go on to provocatively ask how this good God allows the current experience of suffering. The laments, then, are very much about theodicy or the problem of evil. But for Israel, theodicy was not an abstract philosophical puzzle; suffering was a direct challenge to their covenant with God. According to their covenant, God would care for and protect Israel if they kept its stipulations. Deut. 28 for example, proclaims that all will go well for Israel if they only observe the covenant.
But laments sometimes claim that Israel is suffering unjustly; despite their current situation, the psalmist and the community are innocent! They have kept the covenant and, therefore, do not deserve their current calamity (e.g., Ps 44:17-22; 74:20-23 cf. Job). Lament responds to this covenantal crisis with anger and rage oriented directly toward God! Laments also often express dismay and anger that God has apparently abandoned them (Ps 22:1, Lam 5:20). Laments illustrate then that there is no necessary contradiction between faith and doubt. Indeed expressions of doubt, anger, and frustration to God are, in the Psalms, an act of faith and even an act of worship.
3. Praise and Lament Strengthen Community
Songs of lament and songs of praise are both congregational expressions. Both adoration and grief, praise and pain, can and should be expressed in community. When we are not aware of our own suffering, Lament becomes an act of solidarity with those suffering among us. Perhaps one of most devastating effects of suffering is the isolation that it causes. Whether through sickness, oppression or injustice, the sufferer often feels alone, disconnected and abandoned (e.g., Ps 22:1 which Jesus quotes on the cross).
This sense of isolation can be exacerbated when entering a worship service which does not give space or voice for pain and grief. The practice of communal lament helps build authentic community because those who are suffering realize they are not alone. Rather, they are in the company of a community that helps them give expression to their grief.